Driven by his own frustrating experiences with the college recruiting process, Garrett Lord and his friends built a company to transform the recruiting process. Now, it’s providing unprecedented access to opportunity for college students across the US and is beginning to expand worldwide.
Garrett Lord is an unlikely tech entrepreneur. He grew up far from Silicon Valley outside Detroit and attended a local community college before transferring to Michigan Tech–a small school located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Michigan Tech is a seven-plus hour drive from big city metros like Detroit and Chicago. The school struggled to bring recruiters from top companies to their on-campus career events, which meant it was incredibly challenging for students to find great opportunities.
Garrett didn’t have the family connections or the benefit of an Ivy League education on his resume, but he was hungry. With the help of a professor and mentor, he secured a great internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory where he met students from schools like Stanford, Harvard and MIT. “They talked about the incredible range of companies that recruited on their campus, and how everyone was employed by Google,” Garrett says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have Google showing up on your campus. This is ridiculous. Nobody shows up on my campus.’”
The following summer, Garrett made scores of cold calls and sent countless emails before landing an internship at Palantir. “I was one of the only kids not from Stanford, MIT or an Ivy League institution,” he explains. Once inside the company, Garrett began referring his friends, diversifying the company’s recruitment. Yet he thought that wasn’t a sustainable way of doing things. “I thought it was unfair. With the same intelligence and skills, why are opportunities accessible only as a function of what school you go to, or your socioeconomic background?’ There are so many talented students out there who can’t even get their foot in the door,” he says.
The experience inspired Garrett to find an innovative solution to help bridge this gap and even the playing field. He decided to start Handshake with the mission of helping every student find a great job and build a meaningful career, no network, experience or luck necessary. Recruitment was time-consuming, messy, and relied on a patchwork of systems. Employers were loath to invest resources into recruiting at schools that weren’t surefire sources of well-credentialed student candidates. Handshake would change that.
Early on, Garrett and his co-founders believed that an easy-to-use software solution would serve students, employers, and schools. “We started at the very beginning thinking about how we could bring all three of these groups together in a platform to add unique value to students,” Garrett says, “But we were always students first.”
The company launched in 2013. The first headquarters was near campus in Houghton, Michigan–a rented house that cost $700 a month. Garrett’s father drove supplies and equipment up to Handshake’s first office in his Ford Focus. “We filled the fridge with caffeine and just got to work.”
Before long, Handshake had great software, but no customers. So Garrett and co-founder Ben Christensen got into Lord’s father’s Ford Focus and started driving. They put 36,000 miles on the car driving from university to university. They slept in the back of McDonald’s parking lots and showered in college gyms. They walked into many college career centers and heard plenty of polite “No’s” in response.
But then things started to change. One signed up. Two more quickly followed. Then Handshake signed five at once. Then 60. Then 160. They raised their Series A. “We’ve doubled or exceeded doubling the business in terms of revenue and headcount every year since, and now we’re the largest single source for US students to find internships and jobs,” he says.
Today, Handshake has 1,400 universities, community colleges, and bootcamps on its platform, powering 93% of the top 500 universities in the US. “It’s the largest early talent network in America, and we’re extremely excited about the growth internationally as well,” he says.
While Handshake now has global ambitions, their initial international expansion came about almost by accident. Garrett traveled with David Shull, an early team member, to a university conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Lord made the trip to promote Handshake to the representatives of US universities in attendance, but during evening dinners, he and David began talking with UK and European representatives. “I was like: ‘wow, this is very similar to the United States,’” he says. Garrett and David recognized the opportunity and decided to launch in the UK. Six months later, David had relocated to London to launch Handshake’s UK business.
Before long, Handshake’s phenomenal growth got the attention of EQT Ventures, and managing partner Alastair Mitchell. “We were looking at the market globally that was swarmed by a bunch of startups in the UK and Europe going after new models of graduate recruiting,” he recalls. But EQT’s artificial intelligence system, Motherbrain, kept spitting out a US-based company that EQT Ventures ought to look at: Handshake.
Alastair went to visit the team. “It was a typical scuzzy startup office, right? Crappy desks and a crappy entrance way,” he says. “But on walking in, seeing the atmosphere in the office and the energy — and then meeting Garrett, I knew this was a company we should invest in. It was love at first sight. The energy, drive, ambition, and then the speed at which he talked about it, it was very clear this was head and shoulders above the other businesses we had seen in the same space.”
EQT Ventures invested into Handshake in October 2018, with further funding, including a $200 million Series F round recently valuing the company at $3.5 billion, and Mitchell has worked closely with Garrett and his co-founders since, sitting on their compensation committee and doing a lot of work outside the board, alongside helping advise the company on major new hires. “It’s a very tight relationship,” says Mitchell. “Alastair’s one of my favourite people on the cap table,” says Garrett. “We’ve got a great personal relationship and I call him and use him all the time. I really appreciate his eagerness. He understands the journey. He’s really stepped up at every inflection point in the company to help me build the business.”
Building that business doesn’t stop. “We are laser-focused on our mission to reduce the inequality that exists in the college-to-career transition,” says Garrett. It’s a personal mission, and one born out of his own frustration and wonder. “I never imagined I’d be doing this in a million years,” Garrett says. “My dream when I started was to launch a shop repairing and fixing computers. I never traveled internationally; I’d never been to New York. This has far exceeded any dream that anyone in my family has ever had for what they could build or could happen in life.”
And now he wants to make sure other early career professionals can have that same feeling, no matter who they know or where they attend college.